Guess what’s the one thing that forcibly strikes me on my infrequent trips back to the UK: cyclists. Yes, they’re everywhere, where once there were none or very few. Bike hire schemes, cycle networks, large scale cycling events, bike shops on every corner etc etc. Britain’s gone bike mad. My view has been reinforced by a recent study called the “The British Cycling Economy”commissioned by Sky and British Cycling, and carried out by no less an august body than the London School of Economics. Actually, it’s a good read. A very well thought out and reasoned report which estimates that cycling’s contribution to the UK economy in 2010 amounted to GBP2.9bn. While some of its recommendations shouldn’t come as a surprise, it does make some interesting observations about the long term sustainability of cycling and its potential overall contribution to UK Plc.
When I lived in the UK, I had a bike. Not to ride for pleasure, you understand. It was Plan B in the event of a transport strike. When I acquired it I lived in Chiswick, 10 miles from where I worked in the City. On the few occasions I was obliged to ride to work, I did so with my heart in my mouth. Particularly once I exited Hyde Park and headed down The Mall towards Embankment and the City. When I moved to Bayswater, only 5 miles from my office, I opted to walk on strike days: so much safer. I was what the report identifies as a “hesitant cyclist”. I had the means and wherewithal to cycle, female, aged between 35-44 but fearful for my safety: too damn right.
Regular readers of my blog will know that I firmly believe if more people cycle, the roads become safer. This is because most cyclists are also motorists and cycling gives them a greater understanding of the dangers faced by cyclists in all environments. Too many other road users lack the necessary patience to wait the 30-odd seconds it takes for a cyclist to pass by safely. They’d rather risk killing or maiming us than wait. The report identifies traffic calming measures as rendering the roads safer whereas anyone who cycles will tell you the complete opposite, as motorists become desperate to pass you lest they get trapped behind you as the road width is narrowed by said traffic calming. It’s no coincidence that the country with the greatest amount of traffic furniture has separate cycle tracks for cyclists: Holland.
When people ask me why I cycle, I trot out any number of reasons, depending on who asks. But primarily I started cycling to regain my former fitness. Yes, cycling helps you to get fit. Bit of a no-brainer that one. According to the report, “the UK leads Europe in the number of sick days taken each year”. The report speculates, based on the results of a similar study in Holland, that if more people cycled regularly the average would fall, giving rise to a saving of GBP1-1.6 bn. over the next 10 years. The key word here is “regular”, defined in the report as someone who cycles at least once a month.
I’m a regular cyclist, I cycle most days and around 15,000km a year. Someone who cycles once a month is an “occasional” cyclist. You are not going to get fit cycling once a month. Exercise needs to be undertaken regularly, at least 3 times a week. But it’s a move in the right direction. The powers that be are targeting initiatives at women and children, since 70% of all cycle trips are currently made by men. For this group the paramount concern is safety. But get these segments cycling and you’ll have whole families taking to two wheels which is surely the end game.
The cycling demographics in UK, and USA for that matter, are different to those in S. Europe. I say this based on my recent experiences of riding Livestrong in 2009 and London-Paris in 2010. In both these countries, cycling is a white collar sport practiced by the young, professional classes with plenty of money to indulge their passion. In southern Europe, while pretty much everyone has a bike of some sort and cycles, it’s still an unashamedly blue-collar sport.
One rather extravagant claim made by British Cycling made me smile. The director of recreation and partnerships, based on Britain’s success on the track, said ” We’ve become the best cycling nation on the planet”. I’m sure there’s some countries who would beg to differ, but let’s not go there. Frankly, the UK, which should be lauded for its efforts, is playing catch up and is following a successful model established some years ago by a number of northern European countries who wanted to ape the countries in cycling’s traditional heartlands: France, Spain and Italy.
That’s not to say everything is rosy in France, far from it. Although pretty much everyone cycles, and the many Federations responsible for cycling are reporting increasing numbers taking up licences, it’s proving more and more difficult to recruit at the younger end of the cycling spectrum. For example, we’re struggling to find funding for our part-time Directeur Sportif who has coached our junior team with great success this season. We don’t need a full-time DS but government funds are only available for full-time positions. Equally, we have no volunteers next season for the cycling school for which frankly we had too few participants this year. Our efforts to significantly lower the average age of our membership, are floundering amidst indifference. Great Britain may well find its first Tour de France winner before France provides its first since Bernard Hinault.